Tunnels, tracks and TEs*

Red Bull Aqueduct, Kidsgrove to Tixall Wide, Staffordshire

TEs* Towpath Encounters

Monday, 7th September. To head south from the Macclesfield Canal entails joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Hardings Wood Junction, weaving a route under the main West Coast railway line at Kidsgrove  – and joining a boat queue at the north end portal of Harecastle Tunnel.

As is often the case weather conditions north of the Harecastle Tunnel differed from those south of the tunnel. Hence, rain at Kidsgrove, dry and cloudy at the south portal…Cleddau has been this way often before, although not last year. Brief questions were asked by the Tunnel Keeper: Numbers of crew on board? Any pets on board? Demonstrate that the tunnel light and horn work… Then off, the third boat in a five boat convoy, entering the gloom for a 40 minute transit…

The canal emerges in Stoke-on-Trent…Little has changed in the last two years: there was no pulling in to moor at Westport Lake but a five mile continuation, on past old derelict buildings,  past Stoke Boats (site of Cleddau’s 2013 /14 refit),  past Middleport Pottery,  past water slide heaven to Etruria and Stoke Top Lock. It was here that the first TE* (Towpath Encounter) took place. A confusion of boats (two going down, one coming up), of boaters (five) and of lock keepers (three) did not prevent an unholy mix up, a hand shoving of Cleddau into the second lock, the winding of paddles ahead of skipper readiness and the accusation “You stole our lock!”  Incidents like that are unsettling…

Onward, down through Stoke -on-Trent  to moor at just past the Wedgwood factory in a pleasantly rural spot.

Tuesday: The Trent and Mersey continues on, through Barlaston, past this very photogenic property,  to the  pretty Meaford locks. The railway is always close by and shortly after arrival at Stone  there is evidence of a back garden railway fan…

There are three locks leading down to the town level in Stone – and some time was spent at Lime Kiln Lock waiting for a boat queue to clear. How good it was though to see signs of normal life at the (recently extended) school across the way. Through the windows small children could be seen exuberantly bouncing on space hoppers, energy expended and distance maintained – a cunning plan!

In a popular place like Stone you might be lucky in finding a mooring close to town – or you might need to take a chance. Was the space opposite the park and the lock landing really a mooring spot? Who knows, but being prepared to scramble around a fence post and across a lock gate at Star Lock puts a boater within easy access of the town and of the M&S Food Hall.

Destination Tixall Wide for Wednesday. It’s a glorious run from Stone, down through Star Lock,  through Aston Lock, Sandon Lock, Weston Lock – and it was at Weston Lock that there was another TE*. Here a photographer was intent on capturing everything around him – and then realisation dawned that by his feet was tied a small canoe on the lock landing bollard closest to the lock. Holding a 16 ton steel boat in a hover in wind and on water is never easy; at Weston Lock the approach is on a bend,  in an open setting affected often by swirling wind…  Did the photographer / canoeist appreciate the difficulties for narrow boats? No! Did he appreciate that a lock landing bollard was solely for the use of boaters using a lock and not as a mooring place? No! Could he see how vulnerable his own craft was? No!  This was a Towpath Encounter when frustration mounts and blood pressure rises…

Within half an hour though there was a third TE*, but of a very different nature. There, fishing from the bank in front of nb Free Spirit   was Irene. .Cleddau was pulled in and a 20 minute catch up session ensued, a first meeting since September 2015 at Marsworth on the Grand Union…

Down one more lock, Hoo Mill, gaze in passing at the Canalside Farm Café   (Is it open? Surely it’s not closed…?  No it hasn’t,  but it’s adapted its catering to meet the new Covid guidelines.)

Coming from the north it takes a hard right swing to turn under Great Haywood Junction Bridge and onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. The canal heads over the River Trent Aqueduct  and within half a mile it reaches the lake-like waters of Tixall Wide, a broad expanse of water created by the canal builders in the 1770s to provide good views from the now disappeared Tixall House. It’s a much loved mooring spot, a haven for waterfowl – and, earlier this year, a sanctuary for various boaters during Lockdown.

It’s peaceful at Tixall Wide.  If there’s wind from the south an occasional train might be heard across the Sow Valley from track running between Rugeley and Stafford. A circular walk on Thursday from Tixall Bridge through Milford and along  a track on Shugborough Estate provided snatch views of a castellated structure, seen across the valley from Tixall Lock  and from above in Shugborough grounds –  a tunnel portal fitting for a grand estate!

 

A Cleddau cruise in these parts has often involved additional day crew, the ‘Stafford Campanologists’. (Seen here   in 2018). And so to another TE* (of the delightful kind). Gamely on a chilly afternoon at Tixall Jan and Tim sat on towpath chairs, and over tea and cake experiences were shared of living this year under Covid-19…

“Clockwise round the Four Counties Ring” was Boatwif’s cruise ambition. It’s going well, Boatwif’s strapped wrist steering into and out of locks, the Captain providing muscle on paddle gear, gates and ropes… On leaving Tixall Wide it’s a  journey south and west before a turn north at Wolverhampton onto the Shropshire Union Canal. First though there’s a 12 lock climb to the Staffs and Worcs summit…

 

Red Bull Aqueduct (Trent & Mersey) to Tixall Wide ( Staffs & Worcs): 26⅓ miles, 18 locks, 1 tunnel

Since leaving Higher Poynton on  2nd September: 49½ miles , 31 locks, 1 tunnel

Monkton Moments*- 2 (Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)

  • “Aargh, Cleddau – Pembrokeshire – Haverfordwest”
  • “Oh, Cleddau, know where that is, have rowed longboats at Aberaeron…”

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